An array of colorful flags from around the world were waved alongside bright banners while chants in French, English and Arabic filled the air on May 4, as activists, advocates and workers took to Beirut’s streets to demand legal protection for migrant domestic workers.
“Confiscating salary, shameful, shameful! Confiscating passport, shameful, shameful!”
The parade was part of a three-day event this past weekend organized by the Migrant Domestic Workers Consortium to raise awareness and demand the government give legal protection to migrant domestic workers in the country.
More than a quarter of a million migrant domestic workers are estimated to work in Lebanon. Most come from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, among other African and Asian countries. Though there are difficulties for all migrant workers in Lebanon, it is the migrant domestic workers who are most vulnerable. The exclusion of migrant domestic workers under Lebanon’s labor law prevents them from benefiting from general protections afforded to workers in other sectors, such as annual and sick leave, a minimum wage, set working hours, the right to change employers and the ability to create associations, among other things.
“There’s a lack of legal framework for their presence here,” says Rana Boukarim, spokeswoman for Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement. She adds, “[The government] made the sponsorship system so they were able to bring them, and they have their own set of rules imposed on [migrant domestic workers] by the work contract. But none of this is actually under the law.”
Migrant domestic workers are under what is commonly referred to as the “kafala” or sponsorship system, called the “free contracting system” by the Ministry of Labor. Migrant domestic workers are tied to their employers for everything. Upon entering the country, their documents are nearly always confiscated by their employers and not returned until they have fulfilled their contracts. Workers are dependent on their employers, who retain legal responsibility for them as their sponsor, for their freedom of movement, food, shelter, communication and general treatment.
Masaret Feleke is a 28-year-old domestic worker from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She has lived in Lebanon for more than a decade and is known in her community network for helping fellow workers trapped in bad situations.
In the building she lives in now in Hamra, she helps get food to three domestic workers on different floors who are being abused. Communicating late at night when the family is asleep by claps and other signals, she coordinates with them and the concierge to get them the food they are not provided by their employers.
"We just see each other and clap. She claps or I clap when I am ready or she is ready. Sometimes, she gives me a rope and then she takes it up. It's very sad, I don't know why they are doing like this,” says Feleke, sadly.
This situation is nothing unusual. According to a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch, one migrant domestic worker dies per week in Lebanon. Another 2010 report found that 34% are given no time off, 31% are not allowed to leave the house, 14% are physically abused and 7% are sexually abused. Nearly all migrant domestic workers are denied freedom of movement. Despite the fact that several countries have banned their citizens from working in Lebanon, they continue to come illegally.
Despite the immense challenges and dire situations for a majority of migrant workers, some of them, like Rahel Abebe, have managed to do incredible things in Lebanon with their personal strength and the support of their network.
Abebe has been living in Lebanon for more than 10 years. She works outside of her employer's home, is a coordinator for the Migrant Community Center in Beirut and has even managed to start a small catering business aside from her work.
All this sets Abebe apart from most other migrant workers in the country. She is also the only migrant worker ever to sue a Lebanese citizen for discrimination.
One year ago, the Ministry of Tourism issued a circular that read that private businesses would no longer be allowed to discriminate in who they let frequent their beaches. As part of an undercover campaign with the Anti-Racism Movement, Adebe went to Saint-George Beach, on Beirut’s coast. She was denied entry.
She filed a lawsuit with the help of the Anti-Racism Movement. The case was settled out of court, but more importantly to Adebe, the famous “STOP SOLIDERE” sign that hangs in the heart of downtown Beirut now also reads underneath in large red letters, "AND DISCRIMINATION."
“In the region, Lebanon is one of the countries where [migrant workers] are doing the best for themselves, in terms of voicing their concerns, fighting for their rights, demanding better treatment. Because in other countries in the Middle East, this is almost impossible,” says Boukarim.
Current Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi has invited dialogue on migrant workers' rights recently, but for now, the current system is still in place. However, the government is working toward passing a specific law for migrant domestic workers.
Azzi's office said in an emailed statement, “Of course the Lebanese government is very serious about the adoption of a law related to workers working for one individual employer. The draft law was referred to the concerned authority to complete the necessary legal procedures and enter it into force. This draft law takes into account the relevant international convention and recommendation; it also protects and preserves in parallel the rights of both parties (the employers and the male or female workers).”
Though the annual event is over, the fight is not and advocates are hopeful for the future, though their goals are placed further ahead.
“I don’t think that they will remove [the kafala system], in my point of view, right now or in the short term,” says Hessen Sayah, a project manager at Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, “but it will be within a project in the middle or long term.”
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